Besting three other local teams, Berkeley’s ELS and London’s Foster + Partners got the nod for one of the largest stimulus-bill projects to date in San Francisco: the $121 million renovation of 50 UN Plaza, a historic federal building in the Civic Center area.
But the General Services Administration (GSA)’s decision has left some scratching their heads. The other three firms on the shortlist—SOM, Architectural Resources Group with HKS, and Hornberger + Worstell with William McDonough—are all based in San Francisco, and the political wisdom of the choice has been a subject of debate since.
“You’d think that it would make sense to keep the money here rather than send it overseas. It’s not like you’re in Timbuktu. You have very well-qualified firms in the city with experience in San Francisco historic preservation,” wondered Martin Bovill, vice president of development at Hornberger + Worstell, whose projects include the rejuvenation of Ghirardelli Square. ELS, whose proposal lists them as the primary architects and Foster as the partner, served as the historic architect for the recent restoration of Oakland’s Fox Theater.
With an estimated $130 billion in federal stimulus money available for building renovation and construction, architects have been looking to the government for new work. However, the Recovery Act does not state that design and construction work must go to American firms, only that the building materials such as steel have to be produced in the states. The GSA, which manages all federal buildings aside from military property, was given $5.55 billion in the stimulus package to upgrade federal office buildings, courthouses, and ports.
So was the GSA swayed by the star power of having Pritzker-Prize-winning Foster? “We chose the best bid based on the qualitative factors mandated by the Brooks Act and look forward to moving through the negotiations process with ELS and discovering how much work will be done by local contractors and how many jobs will be created in the Bay Area,” GSA spokeswoman Sahar Wali said. The Brooks Act is a federal law that states that the government select architecture firms based on qualifications, not price.
Wali confirmed that they were in negotiations with the team of ELS and Foster + Partners, working out the financial details of the project, but also reiterated that the contract had not yet been formally awarded. ELS principal Kurt Schindler declined to comment, saying the GSA had requested all calls to be referred to them.
The six-story, 350,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts building was shuttered after the new Morphosis-designed Federal Building opened in 2007. Designed in 1936 by Arthur Brown Jr., who was also the architect of San Francisco’s City Hall, 50 UN Plaza’s interiors recently served as a stand-in for City Hall in the movie Milk. GSA considered a developer’s plan to turn it into apartment buildings, but decided to leave it vacant instead.
For the renovation, given San Francisco’s strict historic preservation stance, Foster will have to come up with something more low-key than his soaring glass dome at the Reichstag in Berlin. The GSA’s intent is to modernize the utilities, put in new bathrooms and open up the interior workspaces while leaving the historic façade, stairwells and corridors in place.